Having a brunch date with a friend of mine on the weekend, I was watching this 2-3 year old girl explore the area within the coffee shop while her parents sat and had breakfast with their friends and family. The was group large and keeping an eye on her in a contained space. She wasn’t disturbing anyone; she was checking out the boundaries of her world. As it was a more ‘relaxed’ style place, there were low lounges and coffee tables interspersed with high benches and stools, and regular sized tables. Needless to say, she collected herself on the furniture a few times. Each time she bumped into a low piece of furniture, she would look straight to the group of people to figure out whether or not to cry, then run to them for comfort. This was a real life demonstration of Bowlby’s (1969) Attachment Theory. I commented to my friend that this was happening, that the girl was demonstrating characteristics of a 'securely attached' child and what that can look like in adult relationships. Clearly, I like to geek out on psychological theory whilst on brunch dates, always makes for interesting conversation (thank goodness for bacon!).
Attachment Theory pops into my mind a lot when thinking about our adult working relationships and our workplace. This theme continues to bounce around in the background of my mind as I listen to and read material on how workplaces are altering, what research is being applied, and what manner. The latest element that has crossed my awareness is the concept of ‘Psychological Safety’. This concept isn’t new at all, Maslow (1943) had ‘Safety’ in the form of protection from the elements, security, order, freedom from fear, etc, listed as a basic need that a human must acquire to move up the pyramid towards self-actualisation. If you are interested in this concept - check Simply Psychology for a succinct overview on different theories. I came across a discussion on Psychological Safety listening to a Podcast about working at Google (NPR Hidden Brain, episode 34: itunes), which then prompted my reading of a NY Times article on the same topic. The beautiful thing about Google is they are constantly analysing data, seeking what’s working and how to make it more accessible / replicable / efficient. Applicable science - that's how I like it. Let's run with what they are learning.
On the back of looking at fear in the workplace, how that has an understandable impact on employee engagement, Psychological Safety is the next step. "What the hell is it and why do I care?" I’m going to quote Charles Duhigg directly here: “…to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.” What did the Google research team find for their 3+ years of investigation? What is the underlying way of promoting this Psychological Safety within their workplace?
Communication and Empathy.
How can anyone on the scale of ‘CEO to Front Line Employee’ feel psychologically secure if there is no pathway for effective communication and no demonstration of empathy? This links back with having a secure attachment style with your workplace, the freedom to try things, make errors, celebrate success, have confidence that your employer or the team you work within has got your back. Fear creates distress and erodes our attachment, our confidence, our trust, ultimately our ability to be present and productive at work.
You want the quantitative change? You have to put in the qualitative work.
Identify, understand, and address structures under pressure.
Care for your people, they’ll care about your business.
I’m speaking on Mental Health in the Workplace and The Ageing Workforce in Brisbane on 26 July 2016 through QBE Building Better Workplaces. Get in touch for information on this date and other national dates for the remainder of 2016.